I have proven through my series of articles on Walt Disney World character meals that my family and I like to eat with Disney “celebrities.” The itch that I’ve been trying to scratch for quite some time is: are these things really worth it?
Granted, my kids love them and sometimes that’s enough…but sometimes it isn’t. Character dining is expensive, time consuming, and often featuring sub par food. On the other hand it offers a chance to kill two Disney activities with one Cinderella outfitted stone: eating a meal and meeting some characters. I have longed for the day when I could sit down and calculate the “true value” of a Disney World character meal.
Luckily, the very smart gentlemen at Mighty Men of Mouse (part of the TouringPlans.com Podcast Network!) did much of the work for me. A recent episode of theirs unveiled a simple yet interesting formula called a Leveraged Equity Number…or L.E.N.
What is L.E.N.
L.E.N. is calculated by adding the total cost of your hotel, tickets, and transportation and dividing this number by the total number of hours you plan on being “active” on your vacation (i.e. everything outside of your hotel room). The result is a cost per hour of your Disney vacation, which can be used to calculate the “cost” of things such as riding the bus or waiting in line.
Another item L.E.N can help quantify is the true cost of a character meal. The example I will be using for the purposes of this article is the Princess Storybook Dining at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall, which is found in the Norway pavilion of Epcot. There are a few reasons for this choice: 1) It is a meal I like and have done multiple times. 2) I feel that the lunch and dinner are decent values for character meals (decent food for only one arm and half a leg). And 3) The princesses in attendance can all be visited elsewhere, most of them in Epcot.
So, for an upcoming trip for my family of four (myself, my wife, my 4 year old daughter, and 2 year old son), I managed to find airfare for $562 total. Added to this are 2 adult and 1 child 7 day Park Hopper tickets valued at $1,156 and 7 nights in Port Orleans French Quarter at the cost of $1,123. The total cost is $2,841.
For each of the 6 full days (non-travel days) we will be in Walt Disney World I estimate that we will average 10 hours of being active, assuming we are out of the room at 8am, napping from 1pm-4pm, and back to the room at 9pm. To those 60 hours I added 6 hours for our arrival day. The $2,841 from above divided by the 66 hours equals a L.E.N. of $43.05. Therefore, each hour of my vacation is “worth” $43.05, whether I spend that hour eating, standing in line, or riding a bus.
The Real “Cost” of the Character Meal
When considering the value of a meal, the cost of the food must be considered in addition to the time. I will split the middle and use the price for an Akershus lunch (here is the all-you-care-to-eat menu), which is $38.99 for an adult and $23.99 for ages 3-10. Plus tax, tip, and alcoholic drinks, my family’s tab would be approximately $150. In addition, I am estimating one hour of eating and greeting time with the princesses. Therefore, with a L.E.N. of $43.05 (rounded to $43), the total cost of the Akershus lunch to me is $193.
If I choose to forego the character meal and meet each princess individually it can be done fairly easily. Snow White, Jasmine, Aurora, and Belle can all be met in Epcot’s World Showcase. Ariel can be found in her new grotto near the new Little Mermaid ride in the Magic Kingdom. Sure, Belle will not be in her ballgown and Ariel will have a mermaid fin, but to children those differences may not matter. Now the tricky part is estimating the time spent in line waiting to meet these five princesses, but I’ll save that for last.
Of course, we still have to eat. To substitute the lunch meal, I will consult the Tangerine Cafe menu in Morocco, which is one of my favorites. If I get the chicken and lamb combo, my wife gets the Chicken Wrap and we each get a beer that would come to approximately $40. My kids would eat food we bring to the park, and that’s not just me trying to be cheap, that is what they would honestly do. Naturally a counter service meal would also take less time, so I will estimate half an hour, making my L.E.N. for this meal $62.
So far the Akershus meal is costing $131 more, but now we come to actually meeting the princesses. The reason meet and greets are extremely hard to predict is because of the on and off nature of it. You may be in line for 10 minutes, then have to wait 15 while the characters take a break before you actually meet them. Alternatively you may just sneak in ahead of their break making the wait either 10 minutes or 25 depending on one spot in line.
Rather than attempt to guess at the wait, here is the break even point: At $43 per hour, that $131 difference works out to about 3 hours of time. That means about 37 minutes per each of the 5 princesses. I don’t know about you, but averaging 37 minutes per princess seems a little high.
Alright, so this isn’t as much a conclusion as it is a qualification. Based on the math, this particular character meal does not seem worth the time and money it costs. Other character meals will differ based on their costs and the availability of the characters. For instance, if you want to meet Lilo (from Lilo and Stitch) ‘Ohana at the Polynesian is the only place where she is commonly available. The value would be less important if meeting that particular Hawaiian sweetheart is your goal.
The most important thing to keep in mind however, is that the “active” time on vacation is a zero sum quantity, meaning that if I use 2 hours to visit princesses (an example, not necessarily a prediction) and 30 minutes to eat that is time spent not doing something else. The one and a half hours extra that plan costs compared to the time of the Akershus meal could be time I would spend on other attractions or meeting additional characters. To properly quantify the value of a character meal I would need to map out my entire trip. I may come back and do that in the next few weeks, but that is definitely more intensive.
So, is a character meal worth it? It’s hard to say definitively, but the evidence is that it is at least close enough to strongly consider skipping them. The convenience of a character meal versus the potential food quality and savings of the alternative is an argument that this lowly analyst could not possibly settle.
What say you: Is character dining a saving grace or black hole from which money never returns?